Monday, February 11, 2013

Pick of the Brown Bag
February 6, 2013


Ray Tate

This week Animal Man, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Batwing, Detective Comics, Doctor Who, Earth 2, The Fearless Defenders, Human Bomb, Prophecy, Smallville, Swamp Thing and World's Finest are the picks of the brown bag.

After reading the premiere issue, I dismissed Fear Itself as yet another Big Stupid Event with main players acting out of character to serve the plot.  The tie-in mini-series however were another matter.  

In The Deep Stephen Strange put together a team of Defenders consisting of Namor, Silver Surfer, She-Hulk and new-character Loa.  I liked what I had read.  Writer Cullen Bunn didn't pollute The Deep with talking heads and deconstructionist dross.  He also committed no character assault.  

Bunn wrote scenes where the usually whiney Silver Surfer grew a set and smacked monsters with his surfboard and where She-Hulk, not red or blue, but She-Hulk, pitched a fastball special that launched Loa against traditional Little Bad Attuma.

When Matt Fraction's Defenders came out with a different roster, I wasn't impressed.  First, Cullen Bunn wasn't writing, and second, I didn't want that team.  I wanted the team from The Deep.

After The Deep, Bunn produced The Fearless focusing on another Defender Valkyrie.  Once again, this series was terrific, and you had to wonder if Marvel were willfully being blind.  Did they not see that Bunn wanted to write a Defenders ongoing series?  Finally, somebody started paying attention.

Bunn brings his sensibilities to the latest incarnation of the Defenders, and just as a reminder from whence his fame surfaced, Bunn adds Fearless to the title.  He should have called it Fantastic Defenders, but that would lead to misconceptions.

The story opens with a portent for Valkyrie followed by an attempted theft of Viking artifacts investigated by Misty Knight.  Bunn then introduces a new archaeologist character Dr. Annabelle Riggs.  

A song emitted from one of the relics Misty rescued causes supernatural mayhem but also calls Valkyrie for a timely rescue.

Fearless Defenders reads like a grindhouse film blended with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.  Valkyrie and the consequences of the viking artifacts bring the fantastic elements to the table.  Although even she gets down and dirty with swordplay wielded against an echo from the Shaw Brothers/Hammer cult classic The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.

Misty Knight's fight against the thieving mercenaries on the ship allows artist Will Sliney to ply his martial arts illustrative chops, and the whole sequence mashes together the deadliest female fighter in cinema Angela Mao with Pam Grier's urban vigilante characters, like Coffy.  Ultimately, Misty's roots.

The back-to-back fighting is a classic image from chop-sockey pictures, and the short-hand dialogue crackling from Bunn's imagination emulates the terse speech from the heroes of 42nd Street.  Finally, as if you needed another reason to buy Fearless Defenders, Bunn and Siley as well as colorist Victoria Gandini seal their work with a kiss.

The Doctor traditionally has bad luck when it comes to luxury starliners.  The space yacht to the Doctor is like the Orient Express to Hercule Poirot.  Think I'm kidding? The fourth Doctor destroyed a drug smuggling ring on The Empress.  After deducing the murder of admiring private investigator Hallet, the sixth Doctor saved the human race from the Vervoids secreted aboard The Hyperion 3, and the tradition continued in his later incarnations with such memorable vessels as The Titanic.

The Doctor absconds with Rory and Amy to a starship bubbling with intrigue. Writer Andy Diggle brings back a welcome guest star from series and a finds a means to introduce her to even more of the Doctor's world, through another dip in the continuity pool.  

Our heroine's goal as always appears to be larceny, but a subplot of slave races planning revolt may factor into her motive.  Each luxury setting in Doctor Who frequently mimics Star Trek's command structure and mirrors the episode "Journey to Babel" in which Captain Kirk must host a group of diplomats aboard The Enterprise.  However, Doctor Who always introduces key differences.
Diggle characterizes the Captain of the vessel as a vainglorious sphincter who loves the slaving nature of his glorious empire, not the Great and Bountiful one the Doctor continuously gushes over.  Definitely not Kirk, and not even Zapp Brannigan from Futurama.  He's the kind of character the Doctor loathes, and I look forward to watching the Time Lord hand him his buttocks.

Artists Josh Adams, Mike Deering, Charlie Kirchoff bring the cast to life while keeping things hopping.  Their depiction of the guest star particularly stands out as does the quiet scene where the Doctor explains to Amy who the mystery woman really is.

Bryan Q Miller offers a meaty issue of Smallville.  In addition to handling the monster-of-the-week elements, in which shadow beings living in a speed limbo stalk the Fastest Man Alive Bart Allen, Miller strikes a key chord in the developing thread of Tess Mercer, Lex's "dead" sister, haunting the bald billionaire.  He also returns to the idea of alternate universe Chloe crashing in a Kansas cornfield.

I placed "dead" in quotes because Lex stabbed Tess with a Kryptonian crystal, and that just may have saved her life.  Mind you, she'll need a new body since her original one was buried or immolated.  Still investigative reporter Lois Lane comes ever closer to the truth.  

The girl's obsessed with brining Luthor down, and it's personal.  Lex coated Superman with a substance that lets him detect the Man of Steel wherever he may be.  That keeps her perpetual fiancee out of reach.  There's nothing worse than a frustrated Lois Lane, and you can imagine Erica Durance achieving such a buzz-saw on the loose performance.

Meanwhile already married couple Chloe and Ollie banter about their baby and how neither have told anybody about their quiver of joy.  I like this scene for a lot of reasons.  One, the dialogue doesn't bore you.  Miller mimics the delivery of the actors.  Two, I like how the duo pass the time while they talk.  Three, the affection between the couple is remarkably evident in the artwork by Jorge Jiminez and  Carrie Strachan, and four, it's all subtly done.

Later in the book Chloe provides the channel in which Dr. Emil Hamilton, liaison to the Justice League, tunes in on the parallel incarnation's thoughts.  Miller sells this bit of science fiction.  He convinces you that it should work, and he uses it for a stirring cliffhanger.  Chloe doesn't see an innocuous other earth.  She sees death right off the bat.

Earth 2 soon overcomes the clunky exposition shared in the opening scene by new Hawkgirl Kendra Saunders and Khalid Ben-Hassin the new Dr. Fate.  Nicola Scott, inker Trevor Scott and colorist Alex Sinclair defy the dry humping dialogue.  However, during the conversation, we do at least learn that Kendra's wings are part of her and not just a harness she dons.  Yes! 

Things pick up when Khalid teleports to find the young Flash Jay Garrick checking in with his mom.  I like how writer James Robinson drops the pretense of secret identity for the loved one.  This avoids a lot of silliness and ramps up the action for an exciting encounter with government troops led by new 52 Sandman Wesley Dodds.  I should point out that although the names sound familiar, these "Wonders" are new.  For instance, Kendra shares the name of the post-Crisis JSA's Hawkgirl, but our Kendra carries none of the other avatar's angst, nor exhibits inexperience.  Our Kendra furthermore like the Silve Age police woman happens to be a weapons expert.

World's Finest amps the dynamism in the Huntress' and Power Girl's stay on earth one.  Writer Paul Levitz opens the book with a Haiku.  Oh, no.  I mean Haakou.

Levitz reveals the origins of the radiation eating monster that vexed Helena and Karen in their premiere issue.  It turns out that Apokolips had nothing to do with this creature's involvement.

The strike team believe that their task will be a milk run, but little do they know that Batman's and Catwoman's daughter recuperates in the sickbay.  George Perez makes a one-armed bona fide Huntress more dangerous than the two-armed generic model that DC kept forgetting to kill in Big Stupid Events.

Perez is still rushing through the artwork, but cosmos be damned if rushed Perez isn't a million times better than most.  What could have been a by-the-numbers mercenary squad benefits from Perez's molded armor and distinctive features that Huntress quickly messes up in nasty ways.  

As we see in a flashback energetically illustrated by Cafu, Power Girl acts as the conscience of the duo.  This differs from the original Kryptonian who really didn't at all care for humanity and resented her cousin when telling her to hold back.

The conclusion to Prophecy surprised the heck out of me.  As it turns out the most important players in this sensational under the radar crossover is in fact Red Sonja and believe it or not Alan Quatermain.

Red Sonja's hatred of Kulan Gath, expressed palpably in her lovely countenance by Walter Geovani and Adriano Lucus, proves to be vital to the event, and her acumen and experience in time travel feeds her with the insight to prevent the apocalypse begun by the sorcerer.  

Then, Quatermain having stolen the dagger in the second place, catalyzing Sherlock Holmes' involvement in the affair, atones for his crime by hampering the ultimate n'er do well from using the dagger to potentially recreate Gath's wave of destruction.

Perhaps the most surprising of all is that this humble and unhyped mini-series actually has consequences for the main characters. Prophecy is easily one of the finest licensed property crossovers in the last two decades.  It compares favorably to neoclassic DC/Dark Horse team-ups such as Batman vs. Predator and Superman vs. Aliens.

Prophecy was always a Red Sonja and company story.  Swamp Thing/Animal Man was always a Batman and company story.  The difference is that Batman as we know him never appears, and I wouldn't be surprised if Scott Snyder was inspired by the near Holmes bereft The Hound of Baskervilles. 

You can almost envision Bruce working behind the scenes, while still fighting normal crime, as Arcane makes his move and the Rot invades the planet.  He searches for Swamp Thing and Animal Man and notes their absence.  He calculates for their return.  He starts building the Bat mecha that will save the world, while probably still partaking in Justice League missions.  He inoculates Barbara with an antidote mixed with the Langstrom formula before he succumbs.  He relays a detailed plan on video feed and then laughs like his idol the Shadow because Batman has already beaten Arcane, and the dumb ass doesn't even know it.

I've happy to say that I predicted most everything Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire had up their sleeves--including the metamorphosis of Batgirl into a She-Bat, but I can't take credit for forecasting the giant reset button at the end.  We all kind of knew that this would happen.  However, the exact means does come as a surprise, and even I, so in tune with what Snyder and Lemire were doing could not foresee all the little twists in store. So, although Prophecy is the better of these three somewhat similar-themed titles, Swamp Thing and Animal Man still have a lot to offer the reader.  

Frankenstein gains some remarkable power in Animal Man.  Black Orchid kicks a lot of rotting ass.  Swamp Thing uses a Batman staple to gain strength and stamina.  There's this moment…

Swampy and Buddy really do go beyond the call of duty in this story, and Arcane is sicky, sick, sick, sick.  

The way in which Buddy taps into the Red, the animal kingdom, is unexpected, clever yet foreshadowed.  The death of one hero recalls the sacrifice of Anya in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The use of the rot-infested Cyborg is a keeper.  As is this awesome crossover.  

Created by the founder of DC Comics Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and Superman's sires Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Slam Bradley, believe it or not, debuted in the very first issue of Detective Comics.

Slam started as a private eye in the vein of Mike Hammer and Sam Spade.  His place in history however would soon be usurped by a colorful wave of characters and one really dark one ushered in by his originators' Man of Steel.  

Slam flickered back into the Bronze Age one or twice before making a bigger splash in the post-Crisis.  He briefly returned as a police detective to the Superman titles during the Byrne/Stern era but soon returned to his roots as a gumshoe when Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke reintroduced him in the modern Detective Comics.  In that chapterplay, he investigates the apparent death of Selina Kyle.  He of course would next become her partner in non-crime, in the justifiably lauded series Catwoman.

While Slam technically still hasn't shuffled into the New 52, we have this splendid issue of Legends of the Dark Knight to sate us while we wait.  Josh Fialkov portrays Slam as an aging, unlucky detective.  Artists Phil Hester and Eric Gapstur toughen the old crime fighter as if he were a piece of human beef jerky.  

Slam butters his bread by taking photos of cheating husbands and wives.  He tries to keep away from the big cases and sees himself as a little fish in a big pond filled with capes, cowls and freaks.

While on a case for a paying client, Slam witnesses a brutal murder, and though he leaves evidence behind for the cops, he finds himself under the Bat-Signal.  Gotham PD and Batman believe him to be a killer, and things just get much worse from there.

Part of the fun is seeing how the costumed world kicks the crap out of Bradley, but he steadfastly won't fall down.  In the end Batman reassesses the evidence and knows that Slam's been framed.  This leads to a terrific team-up between Dark Knight and Down-on-his-Luck Dick.  Here's hoping when the Powers That Be reintroduce Slam into the new 52, it's as good as his return in Legends of the Dark Knight.

Fairplay mystery is the theme of this week's Detective Comics.  While the story is still ostensibly related to "Death of the Family," it's more of a singular entity.  Batman deduces the identity of the new villain and alleged Joker aficionado The Merry Maker.

You'll notice that this stylish character bears no resemblance to the Joker, and that's a clue.  It's not the only one.  Clues lie in plain sight for the budding detective or mystery buff to find.  All you must do is observe the facts of the case and thread the needle.

Cerebral moments take the center stage in Detective Comics, but Jason Fabok still demonstrates Batman's skill as a martial artist.  He and writer John Layman indicate Batman's sense of humor through the utilization of the latest Waynetech.  There's plenty of daring on display as well as Batman's vigilante elements.  Although Detective Comics has, let's be honest, shall we, absolutely nothing to do with the Joker and "Death of the Family" it's still well-worth your time.

By now you probably know that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray will be taking over the reins of Batwing.  What this entails is anybody's guess.  Most believe Gray and Palmiotti will be introducing a new Batwing.  I'm not so sure about that.  However, writer Fabian Nicieza certainly adds fuel to that fire.

Last issue David Zavimbe arrested Ancil Marquesbury for murder.  Ancil is the son of a rich, white industrialist.  Doing the right thing earned David a scarlet letter.  

His colleagues on the already corrupt police force shun him.  Hell, they tried to kill he and the young witness last issue.  His former friend Kia, who is the most sterling of the pack of badged thieves, also won't give him the time of day.  

In addition to the personal cold shoulder, Nicieza goes after the Batwing persona.  An armored assassin clips Batwing's namesakes.  The bad guys attack the Haven, Batwing's headquarters.  Another mercenary with a familiar face appears to have given up fighting the good fight, and ends up turning a gun on David.  

Yeah, it would be difficult to find some more symptoms of going down in flames, and if this were DC's plans for the fledgling Batman Family member, it would explain why Judd Winnick left the book.  Well at least Fabrizio Fiorentino and Peter Pantazis make it a pretty Hindenburg.

I will probably at least try the new Batwing even if the title character is a new man.  Normally I wouldn't.  I'm fundamentally opposed to scorched earth policies, and I genuinely thought Batwing was pretty darn resonant in his own right.  However, Palmiotti and Gray were responsible for bucking up my spirits in the darkest days of the DCU.  

Power Girl was the last thing I bought from the old DC, and I left when the PGA left.  A being Amanda Conner.  That was good in a way.  Michael Straczynski with the devastating stroke of the single worst comic book issue of all time forced my decision to conduct a total boycott.  I would have hated to drop Power Girl.

I thought the boycott would last forever, but Batgirl walks again.  So long as she walks, I make mine DC.  Batwing was a personal favorite.  I don't know what's going to happen, but the animosity I harbored for DC Comics long since passed.  I also owe Palmiotti and Gray.  That said, I will always be objective.

The Human Bomb isn't without entertainment value.  Jerry Ordway creates some unusual imagery with a slew of red "androids."  The new Bomb's ethical backbone is winning, but ultimately, this issue lacks the focus of the startling premiere, and the characters jump around too many settings.  Although I appreciate compressed storytelling as opposed to padded dreck, this story really needed some breathing room.  Still, the next chapter looks promising.

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